This writing sample is part of the research phase for my School of Public Affairs Leadership Program social action project. This semester I am focusing on building a solid understand of how to identify and combat stress on college campuses, which included understanding previous research that had been complied on the subject. Next semester this literature review, along with other documents this semester, will provide the basis of a project to try and help my campus better handle stress.
For new college students the transition to campus life brings freedom, opportunity, and the loss of a longtime safety net. It is little wonder that such a daunting transition, when coupled with academic and social pressures as well, has led to tremendous amounts of stress in students across the country. This has caused a negative impact on students quality of life, cognitive abilities, and overall health. Some studies have focused on a combination of wellness courses and physical activities. Most studies have reported at least some measure of success in these efforts, but some have pinned these successes on their indirect effects on other traits. Any solution to widespread stress must actively involve students over a long period of time, and focus on teaching sustainable tools that can be used car into the future.
While many of the papers on this topic are not focused solely on a population of undergraduate students, there are certain lessons that can be extrapolated to a more general group. Studies focused on medical graduate students, engineering undergraduates, and Indian students might change some environmental factors, but for the most part those are negligible and not enough to discount studies from being compared to the undergraduate population. A more direct connection would have been appreciated, but ideal research conditions are not always possible. Given the large body of literature available and the different situations they came from, it was remarkable that most of the papers reached relatively similar conclusions and gave often overlapping recommendations. That helps support the assertion that themes from across the various studies can be applied to a more generalized campus.
Current Stress Levels on College Campuses and Effects on Student Life
Before examining strategies for reducing stress, it is important to understand the current levels of stress on college campuses. The Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) at UCLA is an organization that has been tracking trends in college freshmen across the country for over fifty years. Their report 2010 report, released in 2011, found student’s emotional health to be at record lows due to a number of college related stressors (Pryor). While the CIRP report did not go more indepth into examining the causes of stress, numerous other studies have extensively identified certain stress creating factors. Lifestyle decisions, choice of major, and external social pressures have all been examined in how they contribute to stress. While individual papers have focused on different areas, taken as a whole they paint a more complete picture of the current college campus.
College students gain a degree of choice over their lifestyle that in many cases was inaccessible back home. These choices can lead to increased stress levels for several different reasons. A study examining Turkish undergraduate medical students found that “place of residence, smoking status, and body mass index” were all contributing to rising stress levels (Nur, 2017). That paper, authored by researchers for the Cumhuriyet University Department of Public Health, found that new choices associated with the three factors all caused students to stress more. An additional study published by an engineering professor and a public health professor at Rowan University examined the effect of major choice on student stress. The research found that “engineering students as a whole were not significantly more likely” to be at risk for stress related diseases, but also found that they were less likely to excessively drink or smoke, which other majors were more likely to do (Foster, 2003). The results from that paper suggest that while major choice plays a small role in total stress levels, an environment that controlled for alcohol and drug use would find certain differences in stress between majors based on differences in academic rigor. The theme of academic stress, coupled with social pressures, was also explored in a paper by Daphne E. Pedersen of the University of North Dakota. She researched how stress from outside situations spillover into college students lives, and what school factors place them more at risk for that spillover. They identified “ unrealistic course expectations, and interpersonal conflicts” as two of the main factors which would cause students stress to spillover between parts of life, in addition to overall financial stability which was a main concern for a majority of students (Pedersen, 2016).
These stressors can have a major effect on quality of life and academic success. The Rowan University study focused on the link between student stress and heart attacks (Foster, 2003). While the data itself did not find a link between engineering majors and heart attack, overall student stress was found to have a major impact on heart related health issues. While this could be contributed to the influence of drugs and alcohol that the paper also focused on, the end result was still higher stress levels in students. Academically, a study performed on Indian students also found worse “goal orientation” among undergraduates as stress levels went up (Ahmad, 2013). The poor goal orientation led to overall lower performance in classes. While the academic consequences should take the backseat to the health impacts of stress, it is important to discuss both when outlining the effects of stress on students. Without understanding the full picture, any possible solution risks not addressing the problem fully.
Possible Strategies to Combat Stress
The literature has mainly provided two paths for reducing campus stress, a classroom based wellness curriculum or different variations of physical activity. Both methods have their merits, and can contribute to a larger understanding of effective strategies. The purpose of this section is not to it the merits of one idea against the other, but to collect both and find any potential common ground between the two. Obvious drawbacks will also be discussed, so that the discussion is level fielded and fair.
A study from the New York Presbyterian Hospital on medical students examined the link between physical activity, in this case yoga, and stress levels (Prasad, 2016). By finding voluntary medical students with no prior history of meditation exercises, they began a six week intensive yoga program. At the end of the structured program researchers discovered “statistically significant reduction in stress levels” among the participants, even ones that had previously been physically active in a different manner (Prasad, 2016). Over an extended period of time the researchers were able to identify a way to improve students from a variety of different backgrounds, and introduce them to healthy tools to continue lowering stress levels. Because students with previous types of exercise still found lower stress levels after yoga, it is possible that yoga has a more powerful stress reduction effect than other activities.
Following on previous research that physical activity lowered stress levels, researchers from Brigham Young University examined the effect a mandatory, or non-mandatory, physical education class had on students quality of life and stress levels. These classes included more than just yoga, and took a larger look at physical activity (Sharp, 2016). The study looked at the stress levels of students enrolled in these physical education classes at the start and end of the semester, and examined if the activity continued to lower stress even from a mandatory program. They found that “physical activity can be a powerful tool” even in mandatory situations to reduce the total levels of stress in students (Sharp, 2016). Over an entire semester, students were able to learn and internalize proper physical activity methods, which was a positive benefit even if they were forced into it by the university. This study somewhat challenged generalizations from the New York Presbyterian Hospital study by proving the value of all physical activity over a longer span of time in effectively reducing stress.
The importance of the formal classroom can also be noted in the Brigham Young study, while it was notably absent in the New York Presbyterian Hospital one. The role a classroom can play, either actively or passively, was also explored in a study from the University of Memphis Wellness Center. Rather than focusing on the use of physical activity, the researchers provided a class focused on overall mental health lessons, with one section of the course providing the information in a lecture based format and the other focusing on interactive models. Over the course of the semester, students tracked their stress levels as they learned new strategies. It found that the lecture based classroom was “rather ineffective at reducing stress when compared to” the interactive counterpart, which saw significant reductions in stress levels (McClanahan, 1993). The students were exposed to the curriculum over an extended period of time, giving them ample chance to absorb the wellness curriculum and lower their stress levels. While that study is particularly dated, the idea that student buy-in is important to stress reduction is similar to how physical activity requires action on the part of participants. Both interactive classrooms and exercising need student participation to succeed, which gives this dated study more credibility twenty years later.
Long Term Questions, Indirect Factors, and Moving Forward
Physical activity is not a panacea, and none of the research guarantees long term stress reduction in students once the given study is finished. The University of Memphis noted in their study that the stress levels “could not be tracked after the 12 week semester” had ended, so the study could not guarantee even the interactive classroom lessons would stick (McClanahan 1993). While all of the studies that lowered stress were successful, without further backup data it is impossible to know if any of the programs were able to follow through on their goals.
There is also the question of if physical activities result in less stress, or if other indirect factors are at play which could be activated using different techniques. Researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham focused on what was directly causing the decrease in stress levels, and found that the actual activity of exercising was only “indirectly associated” with lower stress (Joseph, 2014). The finding pointed towards positive body image reducing student stress, rather than the exercise itself. While repetitive exercise regimes were able to effectively increase body image, the study also suggested that they were far from the only tool that could be used, and instead suggested “a campaign focused purely on boosting self-esteem” could have similar levels of success (Joseph, 2014). While the trend in data might be to use physical activity, the literature might be too tunnel visioned on it as a perfect solution. The long term success of current strategies beyond research periods must be understood, along with the effectiveness of other self-esteem boosters that take different routes. If future studies focus on those two aspects there would be a more clear path towards helping reduce student stress on college campuses.
Stress on college campuses is a major problem, but research points to a better and more prepared future. By promoting wellness or physical activity classes, there could be a slight decrease in certain student groups stress levels. More broadly, a campus wide self-esteem campaign could potentially be an effective way to lower stress in a larger audience. Moving forward this project will focus on the feasibility of such a campus wide effort, and what form it should take in order to reach as large an audience as possible. Any move made towards stress relief should be bold and wide reaching, to do any less is to ignore the gravity of the issue on the everyday life of students.
Ahmad, A. (2013). A Study of Stress-Coping Skills Towards Goal Orientation Among Undergraduate Students. Social Science International, 29(2), 247-255
Foster, C., & Spencer, L. (2003). Are undergraduate engineering students at greater risk for heart disease than other undergraduate students? Journal of Engineering Education, 92(1), 73.
Joseph, R., Royse, K., Benitez, T., & Pekmezi, D. (2014). Physical activity and quality of life among university students: exploring self-efficacy, self-esteem, and affect as potential mediators. Quality Of Life Research, 23(2), 659-667. doi:10.1007/s11136-013-0492-8
McClanahan, B. S. (1993). The influence of an undergraduate Wellness class on student lifestyle behaviors: A comparison of… Wellness Perspectives, 9(4), 33.
Nur, N., Kıbık, A., Kılıç, E., & Sümer, H. (2017). Health-related Quality of Life and Associated Factors Among Undergraduate University Students. Oman Medical Journal, 32(4), 329-334. doi:10.5001/omj.2017.62
Pedersen, D. E., & Jodin, V. (2016). Stressors associated with the school spillover of college undergraduates. Social Science Journal, 53(1), 40-48. doi:10.1016/j.soscij.2014.12.008
Prasad, L., Varrey, A., & Sisti, G. (2016). Medical Students’ Stress Levels and Sense of Well Being after Six Weeks of Yoga and Meditation. Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine (Ecam), 1-7. doi:10.1155/2016/9251849
Pryor, J. H., Hurtado, S., DeAngelo, L., Palucki Blake, L., & Tran, S. (2010). The American freshman: National norms fall 2010. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.
Sharp, Elizabeth, and David Barney. “Required And Non-Required College Physical Activity Classes Effect On College Students’ Stress.” American Journal Of Health Studies 31.2 (2016): 74-81. Academic Search Premier. Web. 6 Nov. 2016.
Literature reviews can often be a tiring or difficult project when assigned. This one was different because I was able to choose a topic I was passionate about, and it made all the difference in terms of my moral during working. I am extremely proud of this literature review, both because of the quality of the writing and the potential of what it will help me accomplish next semester.